Peter C. Frumhoff—an ecologist named as the 2022 Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life—spoke to community members on Wednesday in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall about his work and how he is translating it to action on climate change. Frumhoff is a global change ecologist who has experience in climate change impacts, climate science and policy, tropical forest conservation and management and the conservation of biodiversity.
“I also knew that I couldn’t live with myself professionally if I weren’t finding some way to contribute to problem-solving. To slowing global changes that we were witnessing through informing policymaking,” Frumhoff said. “ I did a lot of thinking about how I could contribute towards the science and policy gap.”
Frumhoff offered an anecdotal story to community members which inspired him in his work. He explained that he grew up in Los Angeles in 1973 when there was a thick smog. The smog was so prevalent that, Frumhoff explained, he often could not see the mountain range which was a mile away from his home.
The air quality today in Los Angeles is better than it was back in 1973 even though there are more cars on the road, Frumhoff told students. “This change didn’t happen overnight,” Frumhoff explained. It was due to the work of Arie J. Haagen-Smit—a biochemist at CalTech—who identified where the smog came from by looking at the science behind air pollution.
Haagen-Smit was the first to demonstrate that smog came from the mixture of the exhaust from the tailpipes of vehicles mixing with sunlight. Haagen-Smit received pushback against his work and raised doubt about his work. But Frumhoff said he was “intrigued” by Haagen-Smit’s story because he fought back and turned to public advocacy to support his findings. It took three decades, but Haagen-Smit’s work led to the development of policies against smog, like the Clean Air Act signed by former President Richard Nixon.
“It’s important that we think about successes, that we do not forget them. There are not a lot of them right now, we don’t feel them very clearly. But I want you to put in your mind’s eye the cleanup of Boston Harbor,” Frumhoff said to community members. Success stories, Frumhoff explained, show the remarkable change that results from “good policy that is informed by good science”.
Fumhoff explained the importance of equity when it comes to thinking about these success stories. Frumhoff told community members that communities do now “benefit equally or equitably” when it comes to these successes. Oftentimes, communities of lower socioeconomic status do not reap the rewards of the successes, according to Frumhoff, “places where there haven’t been investments in clean air or where traffic is heavier or heavy industry is more concentrated. Places where people are poor or disempowered—often black and brown communities—where people of color live. Do not benefit equally or equitably from the successes we rightly have claimed.”
Frumhoff spoke of his experience working as a climate scientist and director of science and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)—a non-profit based in Harvard Square focused on creating a safer and healthier world. The organization is an advocacy program that, Frumoff explained, was started in 1969 during the Vietnam War. According to Frumoff, students and faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who were primarily physicists called for physicists for the public good—we now know this as sustainability. Contextually speaking at the time, physicists were primarily sought after for their contribution towards the nuclear arms race. In the UCS’s first document, they noted the importance of looking at pollution and ecological change.
Colleen Hitchcock (BIOL/ENVS) was a part of the selection committee for the Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life award. “It was a difficult choice. But a more fitting individual for this fellowship is hard to envision. Especially given the crossroads at which our planet now stands,” said Hitchcock. Recent reports regarding climate change have shown that there is “precious little time,” left to take action against climate change.
“We all need to work together and essentially sprint as fast as we can on those climate actions now to hopefully minimize damage, restore nature and communities, and invest in ways that both equitably and justly bring health and prosperity to our communities,” said Hitchcock. She explained that it is because of the severity of the situation that Frumhoff’s work is as important as it is.
Carol Fierke explained that Richman Fellows are selected based on the impact they have had in public life including: strengthening democratic institutions, improving American society, advancing social justice or increasing opportunities for citizens to become aware and share the benefits of the country. The Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life was created by alumna Carol Richman Saivetz ’69 and her two children Michael Saivetz ’97 and Aliza Saivetz Glasser ’01. The award was named in honor of Carol’s parents, Fred and Rita Richman, Fierke explained to community members.